Frank Leonhartsberger used to scream in his sleep. I knew this from my mother, who lived with him for a while.
Born in Allentown, Pa., to immigrant parents, his father died when he was 3 years old. His mother took him back to her family home in Austria, just in time for the Anschluss, the takeover by Nazi Germany.
Forced into military service as an adolescent, Leonhartsberger fought for Germany and reclaimed his U.S. citizenship after the war.
Supporting himself for many years as a musician and later as a bartender, Leonhartsberger was known for his hospitality, his ready laugh and his appreciation of his friends.
But at night, in his sleep, he screamed. Neighbors in his apartment complex had commented on it.
I asked him about this many years ago. This is some of what he told me: “I was in the Hitler Youth. If you’re a kid and someone gives you a uniform, whoopee! We marched around and sang and got indoctrinated. It was not a bad thing, really. You learned a little discipline, no doubt about it. I got pushed around a few times because I didn’t march right.
“I went into the army when I was 16. The fact was I was not 16 years old, but according to my papers I was. After the Hitler Youth, everyone went into the Arbeits Dienst, a mandatory work crew that got you ready for the army. Our weapon was a highly polished spade.
“All of a sudden, the whole squadron became a part of anti-aircraft. We got our battery, and by now the war was going pretty bad, so we kept the same uniforms. I worked radar.
“You Americans have no idea what war is. You’ve never seen war. Look at it through a young fellow’s eyes.
I saw kids thrown around in the street after a bombing raid. You can’t imagine it. And after the war, there’s thousands of people walking the street, dazed, no idea where you’re getting your next meal or any meal. I remember one time I was so hungry I stole some bread — and that was during the war. If anybody ever thinks there’s glory in it, there’s nothing but misery. That’s all there is.
“There are a lot of people fascinated by war, and some people think there’s honor in war. All for the Fuhrer and the Fatherland! That’s a crock of shit. I didn’t see any glory. There’s no cover. I was scared to death. Day and night, bombing.
“We shot down a lieutenant from New York. He came down with no chute or a bad chute. When he hit the ground he nearly buried himself. On his plane he had a pair of baby shoes. Maybe it was a good luck charm. He had the names of different missions written on them: Berlin, Dusseldorf, Vienna. I carried those shoes around with me for the rest of the war. I thought maybe I could give them to his family, but after the war I lost everything.
“When we got a hit, we would send groups down to pick them up, because sometimes the people would try to kill them. It was impossible not to hate the Americans. They just bombed your city and killed your family.
“On the last day of the war, we were high on a hill. We could see the Russians coming and hear the tanks rumbling. There were only a dozen left. All the officers and staff were gone.
“We were blowing up the 88s and blowing up the barracks and everything. We didn’t want the Russians to get it. We thought it was very heroic, but we were nitwits. We should have gotten the hell out of there. It was raining, and the Russians were bombing.
“One time after we were bombed I was digging out. I kept trying to lift this typewriter out. It was all mangled, but I kept pulling and trying to get it out. I pulled that typewriter out and there was my friend, my best friend. That sobers you up in a hurry.
“I was only in an air-raid shelter one time. I was in Vienna. It was the day the Sudbahnhof was leveled. I went up to pick up a particular piece of radar. There was a big park and outside the railway station, underneath the park, was an air raid shelter. They leveled that railway station to the ground, completely. There was nothing standing. It was the most horrible hour I ever spent in my life.
“When I came out of that, I saw two children and a woman blown to hell. I think that was the day I gave up on a lot of things. I could take a lot of things, my friends getting blown apart, but this was more than I could take. I can still see those three lying there. I have nightmares about it.”
I just learned that Leonhartsberger died in January in Florida. I hope he has, at long last, found peace.
CONTACT GREGORY FLANNERY: email@example.com
“You Americans have no idea what war is. You’ve never seen war. ... You can’t imagine it. And after the war, there’s thousands of people walking the street, dazed, no idea where you’re getting your next meal or any meal. ... If anybody ever thinks there’s glory in it, there’s nothing but misery. That’s all there is.
— Frank Leonhartsberger, remembering his youth in Germany during World War II